Sunday, August 31, 2008

Kingbirds at Higbee's

Being used to birding in areas where eastern kingbirds are plentiful, I would not normally consider them a highlight of a birding trip in late August. However, when there are thirty of them, all sitting in the same tree, it is a different story.

This morning I took a birding walk in Higbee's Beach WMA. I did not join the Morning Flight Project but instead wandered the trails. There was a constant stream of birds going north when I first got there. Most of the birds went by me unidentified; the ones I did identify were mostly either kingbirds or barn swallows.

There were a few patches of activity in the path edges. I saw several Empidonax flycatchers, one of which I think was a least, in addition to the kingbirds mentioned above. Elsewhere a white-eyed vireo was singing out of a dense tangle (or at least something was singing a white-eyed vireo song). There were a few patches of warblers, but not a lot of diversity. One patch held American redstarts, black-and-white, and black-throated blue warblers. Elsewhere were common yellowthroats and an ovenbird.

It was a good introduction to birding at Higbee's Beach. I am not yet sure how much time I will be able to spend there this fall, but it would be worth a trip back.

One complaint: David Sibley's Birds of Cape May encourages birders to cycle to Higbee's rather than driving. The trouble is, there are not any bicycle racks around the parking lots – or at least none that I saw. Pretty much the only places to lock a bicycle securely are the loops in the guardrails. Given that every other site I have visited around Cape May is so bicycle-friendly, it seems a strange omission.


Sunset over Cape May Point, from the Lighthouse

Saturday, August 30, 2008

House Sparrow Pool Party

House sparrows in a ground-level bird bath.

Friday, August 29, 2008

More Cape May Birding

This morning I visited Cape May Point State Park again. The species present have been fairly consistent over the past few days. My new bird for today was a northern waterthrush, on one of the trails in the back area. There were also quite a lot of ruby-throated hummingbirds buzzing around. Bunker Pond has a mix of the more common sandpiper and plover species. Lighthouse Pond had a little blue heron and blue-winged teal.

Yesterday morning I was at the Nature Conservancy's Migratory Bird Refuge (a.k.a. "The Meadows"). It had a similar mix of species as the state park ponds – mostly the common shorebirds. There were also a few gadwall near the observation tower.

Two evenings ago, I saw a black tern and some royal terns on the state park beach.

Update: A sea watch this evening produced a cluster of terns - black, Forster's, common, least, and royal. There may have been a few others in the mix, but if so I did not identify them in time.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Review: All Things Reconsidered

In honor of the centennial of Roger Tory Peterson's birth, I am reposting this review of a collection of his writings, which I first posted here in January 2007.

Roger Tory Peterson is one of the premier figures in birding from the last century. In the early twentieth century, his field guides to birds aided the development of a class of amateur naturalists who practice their hobby with binoculars rather than shotguns. There must be few American birders today who are not familiar with Peterson's field guides and who have not been influenced by them. His Field Guide to Eastern Birds was the first that I used, and I still refer to it on occasion.

In addition to being an influential field guide illustrator, Peterson was a photographer and prolific writer. Even though he died ten years ago, he now has one more book to his name: All Things Reconsidered: My Birding Adventures. The book reprints essays from a regular column of the same name that Peterson wrote for Bird Watcher's Digest from 1984 until his death in 1996. The collection was prepared by Bill Thompson III, editor of Bird Watcher's Digest and blogger at Bill of the Birds.

The subtitle, "My Birding Adventures," applies best to a subset of essays. Peterson was an avid traveler, around the Americas and especially to Africa. These accounts display Peterson's skill as a story-teller as he recounts close encounters with wildlife, as well as mishaps on several trips. The travel narratives are beautifully illustrated, with some of Peterson's own photographs of the native avifauna.

Certain essays describe changes to the birding and conservation scenes in the years since Peterson first began his career. For example, the fortunes of raptors shifted remarkably during Peterson's lifetime, from persecution at migration sites in the early twentieth century, to protection and expansion mid-century, to near-extinction from DDT in the sixties, to a rebound in the century's waning decades. Other essays profile conservation figures and organizations that have come and gone, especially the persons who comprised the defunct Bronx County Bird Club.

As I read All Things Reconsidered, I was struck by Peterson's love of the natural world and his abilities as a writer. I had not read much of his work, so these essays were all new to me. If you have not read much of Peterson's work outside of his field guides, consider reading All Things Reconsidered.

Full citation:

Roger Tory Peterson, All Things Reconsidered: My Birding Adventures. Edited by Bill Thompson III. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Pp. xiv, 354; illustrations and index. $30.00 cloth. ISBN: 0618758623.

To purchase:

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Cape May Update

Since arriving in Cape May, I have been visiting Cape May Point State Park quite frequently during my off-hours. Yesterday morning I found that a strong wave of migrants had arrived in the park. I saw large numbers of American redstarts, as well as at least one black-and-white warbler and a black-throated blue warbler. (Apparently there were much better results at Higbee's Beach.) There were also a lot of eastern kingbirds around the hawkwatch platform. I could not identify all of the peeps in the park's ponds, but I did find some least sandpipers, plus short-billed dowitchers, lesser and greater yellowlegs, and a solitary sandpiper.

Elsewhere around the Cape, I have been seeing hundreds of tree swallows, darting around and perching on the telephone wires. There are handfuls of ruddy turnstones and sanderling on the beaches. Yesterday evening I saw a gull-billed tern fly past Sunset Beach.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Review: Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of North America

In honor of the centennial of Roger Tory Peterson's birth, which will occur on Thursday, Houghton Mifflin commissioned a new edition of his famous field guide. This time the publishing company broke with tradition by publishing a guide that covers all of North America, instead of separate eastern and western guides. The Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of North America now joins the Sibley Guide and the National Geographic guide as the third illustrated field guide covering all of the ABA area.

The new guide fits very well within the Peterson tradition. Most of the paintings are his (though some are digitally enhanced), as are the silhouetted bird forms interspersed throughout the guide. New illustrations, painted by Michael O'Brien, are difficult to distinguish from Peterson's. Similar species are grouped together on a page in similar poses, as in the past. (One change: "Confusing Fall Warblers" have become "Selected Fall Warblers.") While the paintings are mostly the same as in past guides, the colors are far more vibrant so that the brush strokes almost leap from the page.

Text and a range map for each species is placed opposite the plates. The text, written in Peterson's laconic style, was thoroughly revised by Paul Lehman and Bill Thompson so that it would reflect current knowledge of birds' taxonomy and distribution. The text is supplemented by video podcasts at, which introduce bird families, some iconic species, identification tips, and the biography of Roger Tory Peterson.

Aside from stylistic similarities, it maintains use of the Peterson Identification System. The system breaks down identification problems into discrete steps. First, narrow the range of possibilities based on size, shape, and behavior. Then use field marks and voice to make an identification. Peterson's illustrations aid this process by emphasizing only the most important aspects of a bird's shape and plumage. Arrows point to the diagnostic field marks.

The system was innovative when Peterson published his first field guide in 1934. Previous guides had made use of identification keys, which frequently relied on marks or measurements that are not easily observable in the field. That first guide hastened an ongoing shift in bird identification from shotguns to binoculars and opened bird watching to more people. The Peterson system has since been overtaken by contemporary identification methods, which incorporate greater detail and recommend a more holistic approach. Yet Peterson's simplified method continues to provide a sound introduction for incipient bird watchers. I still use a step-wise method like his when I am confronted with an unfamiliar bird.

To make room for all the additional species, the new edition is larger than past editions, almost the size of the Sibley guide. The size and weight may make it cumbersome for field use. It all depends on how much you are willing to carry and how you carry it.

Peterson 1947, Peterson 2008, and Sibley 2000

Advanced birders may not like some aspects of the guide. In particular, rare species are clearly delineated from common ones by placing them on their own pages at the end of a family section. This has clear advantages for beginners since it reduces the likelihood of mistaken identifications. For advanced birders, it has the disadvantage that you need to flip about two dozen pages to decide if the godwit in your scope is a Hudsonian or a Bar-tailed. The lack of in-flight illustrations for most songbirds will make some identifications more difficult. The depiction of incomplete or cutoff forms for some species is another potential drawback.

As I have written in the past, each field guide will work best for different people. The best thing is to compare a group in a bookstore (or at the guides' websites) to see which features you like best. The new Peterson guide has much to recommend it, especially to a birder who seeks an additional desk reference or supplement to a regional guide.

Roger Tory Peterson, Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of North America. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.

Monday, August 25, 2008

West Nile in the DC Area

I originally posted this in June 2006. I am reposting since August is typically a peak month for human WNV infections and because I wrote about WNV and bird diversity recently.

Researchers are studying the effects of the West Nile Virus on local bird populations and how the virus gets transmitted to humans. To do so, they have been setting up insect traps in certain parks around the Washington and Baltimore metro area to catch mosquitos. Birds at the same sites are being caught for blood tests. The results are interesting:

Robins, it turns out, appear to be taking the hit for humans, getting sick and dying as did thousands of crows that were infected in the first wave of West Nile virus after it arrived in North America. Thanks to the robins, humans who frequent the 26th Street dog park and similar areas have a lower chance of contracting the virus, at least in spring and early summer months. The reason? To mosquitoes, robins are far more tempting meals.

Then the scene changes.

"Robins begin to migrate south in late July and August," Kilpatrick said, "leaving mosquitoes on the hunt for blood from another source."

That source turns out to be Homo sapiens . The number of human infections with the virus shoots up come the dog days of August. Then it's mosquito vs. man or woman, instead of mosquito vs. robin.

It has been understood from the beginning that this is primarily a bird disease. Crow populations in certain areas have been devastated by the virus. Other birds have taken a hit as well. What I find perplexing is the migration explanation. Sure, robins do migrate, but their local numbers stay high at least through mid-October because the local migratory population is being replaced by robins travelling south from farther north. While the cause for the spike could probably use further explanation, I see no reason to doubt that the late-summer spike is real. So that should be extra reason to be careful about mosquito bites in late summer: do not keep standing water around your house; use insect repellent on bare skin or keep skin covered. (See this CDC advice on avoiding bites.)

Whatever you do, do not blame the birds! The mosquitos that carry the disease were most likely brought to North America on a very man-made airplane. You can only get West Nile from a mosquito bite, not from contact with an infected bird.

As an aside, the article mentions the following sites as "hot spots" for the West Nile Virus and for testing of birds:

Foggy Bottom near the Watergate Hotel is one of a number of urban hotspots for mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus -- and for Americanrobins. Other hot spots include the areas around the Hirshhorn Museum,the National Gallery of Art and the National Museum of Natural History.Not to mention Bethesda and Ridgeley's Delight, a posh neighborhood inBaltimore near Orioles Park at Camden Yards.

I am not sure that any of those sites qualifies as a "local bird paradise," as the title of the article suggests. Most of these are very compact areas with little space for breeding or foraging, and they are places that most birds avoid for that reason.

Read the original article in PLoS Biology.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Bird Drinking Styles

Most birds drink by filling their mouth with water and then tilting their heads back to swallow. This common grackle, for example, tilts its head back.

Mourning dove is one of the few species with the ability to swallow without tilting back.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Blog Note: Off to Cape May

Today I am moving to Cape May to take a job for the fall migration season. I will be working with raptors: helping with banding and doing public presentations. This will give me the opportunity to be more directly involved with bird conservation and to experience one of the East Coast's premier bird migration sites.

I expect to be very busy, so blogging may be lighter than usual, especially over the next few weeks. For the next week or so, I have scheduled a mix of new posts with some reposts of older material to run while I move and get settled. I will resume regular posting myself as soon as I can. The Loose Feathers series may need to go on hiatus for at least the first few weeks and perhaps for the fall. I will still try to post some bird news, though.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Loose Feathers #163

Dunlin and Western Sandpipers / Photo by Carla Stanley (USFWS)

News about birds
  • French ornithologists have done annual bird population surveys since 1989. The surveys show that birds are shifting their ranges in response to climate change, but that they lag well behind the temperature changes.
  • A psychologist has found evidence that a magpie can recognize itself in a mirror. Previously, self-recognition was believed to be a unique trait of mammals.
  • Human visitors have introduced a parasite that could cause avian malaria to the Galápagos Islands. Avian malaria has contributed to extinctions in Hawai'i. Tourism is also bringing invasive insects.
  • Several species of Peruvian seabirds are in need of protection. The causes of their decline range from coastal development near breeding areas to longline fishing. The country has economic reason to protect the seabirds nesting at its guano islands, which are an important source of fertilizer.
  • The RSPB is creating new wetlands for lapwings and redshanks with a "big wheel rotary ditcher," a farm machine imported from the U.S.
  • Stone Harbor (NJ) had to pay a $250,000 fine to the National Wildlife Federation for damaging bird habitat; that money will go to build bird watching platforms at Stone Harbor Point and to fund a conservation management plan.
Birds in the blogosphere
News about the environment
Carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, August 21, 2008

I and the Bird

The 82nd edition of I and the Bird is now online at Sycamore Canyon.

Sharpe's Longclaw Conservation Project

Today I would like to lend my moral support to a conservation fundraising project being conducted by the bloggers at 10,000 Birds. The project is meant to support the Sharpe's Longclaw, an extremely rare bird found only in eastern Africa. The small size of its population makes the species especially vulnerable to extinction if its habitat changes. Unfortunately little is known about its distribution or needs. That is where the 10,000 Birds project comes in.

Charlie summarizes the project as such:

To summarise the project briefly, what we have pledged is to do everything we can to raise 2000 USDollars (or more, of course), which will be combined with money raised by Luca to provide a one-year fellowship for a local researcher, Dominic Kamau Kimani, to a) conduct surveys of suitable longclaw habitat, and b) take an education/awareness programme about the longclaw and the need to conserve its habitat into local schools. Not only are we actively supporting a project that should directly impact on decisions on future conservation measures taken for Sharpe’s Longclaw, we have been officially named as partners to the National Museums of Kenya an institution which manages three World Heritage Sites, twenty-two Museums and over a hundred Sites and Monuments across the country and who are organising and running the surveys (which we are incredibly excited about).
Charlie and Mike are proposing that individuals give small donations of $1-$5 apiece. If enough readers donate, that should cover the cost of the project. This seems like a worthy goal; if it succeeds, it could spur similar initiatives in the future. You can read more about the project and how to donate here.

Blogs have already become a vehicle for funding in other niches, such as the political world. It would be useful indeed if we bird bloggers could become a source for conservation funding.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

How to Comment on Regulatory Changes to the Endangered Species Act

Last week the Department of the Interior announced that it would allow individual federal agencies to conduct and approve their own environmental assessments for new projects. This represents a major change from current practice. Currently, environmental reviews must be submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service for approval. Review by an qualified, impartial authority gives greater protection to any endangered or threatened species that may be affected by a federal project.

Allowing individual agencies to approve their own assessments presents two problems. First, few agencies keep qualified biologists on staff, so the assessments will likely be reviewed by someone with little expertise in conservation matters. Second, officials at individual agencies are likely to want their own projects to be completed with minimal difficulty and will be more likely to overlook potential threats to biodiversity. (We all know what the result of that is likely to be.)

Fortunately, the proposed regulations are subject to public comment before going into effect. Unfortunately, the Fish and Wildlife Service has made commenting more difficult by rejecting email and fax comments and shortening the comment period to 30 days. (Comment periods are usually open much longer.)

You can comment in one of two ways:

  1. Mail letters to:
    Public Comment Processing,
    Attention: 1018-AT50
    Division of Policy and Directives Management, US Fish and Wildlife Service
    4401 North Fairfax Drive, Suite 222,
    Arlington, VA 22203

  2. Visit (or here) and submit your comments via the website.
Comments must be submitted by September 15.

[Note: Thanks to Jonathan Talbot for posting this information in comments to last week's post.]

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Border Wall Damages National Monument

A section of the border wall in Arizona caused severe erosion in Organ Pipe National Monument during a rain storm earlier this summer. During heavy rain storms, flood water usually flows south, across the site of the wall. During the rain storm on July 12, debris carried by the flood blocked the openings in the wall so that water flowed laterally along the wall. The result was much more severe erosion damage than would have occurred if the wall were not there.

The scandalous part is that environmental organizations and the National Park Service predicted that this would happen last year, but the Department of Homeland Security ignored their concerns.

Though Baiza declined to join the chorus of "I told you so," the report shows that he and other Organ Pipe officials also warned Homeland Security about water-flow issues before construction began.

In October 2007, Organ Pipe officials told Homeland Security they were worried that the fence would impede the movement of floodwater across the border; that debris would get trapped in the fence; that backwater would pool up; and that the lateral flow of water would cause damage to the environment and patrol roads, the report said.

In response to those concerns, the Border Patrol issued a final environmental assessment with a finding of no significant impact that said the fence would not impede the natural flow of water or cause flooding, the report said.

The agency said it would remove debris from the fence within the washes and arroyos immediately after rains to ensure no flooding occurred.

At a December 2007 meeting, Kiewit officials stated in a handout that the fence design "would permit water and debris to flow freely and not allow ponding of water on either side of the border" because the drainage crossing grates "met hydraulic modeling requirements."
According to the National Park Service, rainfall events like that on July 12 occur about once every three years. The Department of Homeland Security ought to fix this faulty section (and any others like it) before the next one. It is bad enough that this happened once; it should not happen again.

By the way, this is a good example of why agencies should not be allowed to perform and approve their own environmental assessments.

[via No Border Wall]

Monday, August 18, 2008

Winter Hummingbird Banding

The Louisiana Ornithological Society just released its annual report on winter hummingbird banding within their state. The report covers the 2007-2008 winter season. Hummingbirds were banded, and their crowns were marked with colored paper so that observers could identify individuals. There was frequent turnover over the course of the winter, which necessitated return trips to document new individual hummingbirds.

One interesting result is that 19% of the hummingbirds were returning to the same location where they were previously banded. That was especially notable among rufous hummingbirds, 38% of which were returnees.

Endangered Species in the DC Area

Delmarva Fox Squirrel / Photo by W. H. Julien (USFWS)

Last week, the Bush administration decided to weaken the Endangered Species Act by allowing every agency to perform its own environmental assessments without needing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's approval. They want us to believe that every agency can protect endangered and threatened species adequately, even though most do not have qualified biologists on staff. Last week's proposal was the latest in a long line of administration actions to undermine the ESA, including inventing procedural rules to prevent new species listings, leaving a long list of species that are worthy of listing but not protected, and interfering in critical habitat designations. There have also been past regulatory changes to weaken the ESA. The current rule change is subject to a 30-day comment period, when began last Friday. I will post more about how to comment later.

For now, I would like to point you to this article. The Washington Post is running a weeklong series on endangered and threatened species in the DC area, with different species profiled each day. Some of the mentioned species are well-known, like peregrine falcon, piping plover, and Delmarva fox squirrel. Others are less familiar, at least to most of us.
They might not all be familiar faces. The manatee, a tropical species, is so unfamiliar here that scientists think it might be responsible for some sightings of "Chessie," the mythical Chesapeake Bay sea monster. The Hay's spring amphipod, a blind shrimp-like creature, has been reduced to living in only a handful of springs in Rock Creek Park.

And the Virginia fringed mountain snail is found only along the New River in the western part of the state. Or, was found. Nobody has seen the snail in years.

Researchers say that, as relics of the natural world that once thrived here, all of these creatures are worth saving. When pollution and silt devastated the populations of tiny mussels across Virginia, for instance, small streams lost much of their natural water filter.

"They're all parts of a functioning system," said Gwen Brewer of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "When we lose things out of it, it may make us more likely to lose more things out of it" because the system won't work as well as it did.
Currently 73 species found in DC, Maryland and Virginia are listed under the Endangered Species Act. I hope that in the future number is reduced only because species have recovered, and not because they have gone extinct. The administration's proposed rule change makes the latter more likely.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Wavering on Offshore Drilling

Democrats in Congress are making noises about drilling for oil in the ocean.

In the Democrats' weekly radio address, Pelosi of California said expanding drilling areas would be part of a broader bill which addresses other energy issues....

Pelosi said the legislation would require oil companies to pay billions of dollars in drilling royalties, which would be invested in clean energy resources.

Democrats also want to release supplies from the U.S. emergency oil stockpile to help lower gasoline prices, increase drilling in an Alaskan oil reserve that is already open to exploration and require utilities to generate a portion of their electricity from renewable sources like solar and wind energy.

In addition, Pelosi said, the legislation would seek to rein in excessive energy market speculation that many U.S. lawmakers blame for running up crude oil and gasoline prices.
Allowing some offshore drilling might make sense as bait to pass a larger energy reform package. Unfortunately this proposal seems to emphasize lots of oil (drilling offshore, drilling onshore, releasing oil) with wind and solar as an afterthought. It is also not clear whether this would include an extension of the renewable energy tax credit, which Senate Republicans keep blocking. From my perspective, it looks like shortsighted political damage control rather than a real plan.

What will probably end up passing is a bill with all oil and no renewables.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Skywatch Saturday

New Forest Robin Species in Gabon

A Smithsonian scientist working in Gabon discovered a previously-unknown bird species, the olive-backed forest robin (Stiphrornis pyrrholaemus). Both males and females have an olive back, yellow belly, and dark gray head with white lores. Females have an intensely yellow throat, while males have a fiery red throat. The scientific name means something like "fire-throated stoutbird," based on its Greek etymology.

The species appeared at several locations surveyed by the Smithsonian's Monitoring and Assessment of Biodiversity Program in 2001. Members of the team originally suspected that it was a juvenile of a known species, but comparison with museum specimens failed to show a match. Genetic analysis based on mitochondrial DNA confirmed that it was indeed a new species. The Smithsonian collected ten specimens, one of which will stay in Gabon. Another specimen was collected by a French expedition in the 1950s, but at the time, it was identified as S. xanthogaster.

The new species belongs to the family Muscicapidae, the Old World flycatchers. (The family includes European robins.) Its genus, Stiphrornis, is composed of five species,* all of which occur in Central Africa. S. pyrrholaemus likely split from its closest relative, S. erythrothorax, about three million years ago. While the genus Stiphrornis is common in Gabon, and S. pyrrholaemus is locally common, its precise range and distribution is uncertain.

The olive-backed forest robin prefers primary lowland forest with a moderate understory. It shies away from forests that have been disturbed by large mammals or fragmented by humans. Like the other members of its genus, it forages near ground level. Little is known about these forests in Central Africa, as few scientific expeditions have explored them. Who knows what other species might lurk there?

Description of the olive-backed forest robin (pdf) from Schmidt et al., "A new species of African Forest Robin from Gabon (Passeriformes: Muscicapidae: Stiphrornis)," Zootaxa 1850: 27-42 (15 Aug. 2008).

Photograph from Science Daily.

* I am following the same taxonomy as followed by Schmidt et al. in their new paper. BirdLife classes all members of the genus as a single species, S. erythrothorax.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Loose Feathers #162

Lewis's Woodpecker / Photo by Dave Menke (USFWS)

News about birds
  • Warmer temperatures are leading many British birds to lay their eggs earlier in the spring. This could lead to problems if the chicks hatch when their expected food source is not available.
  • Bird lineages with proportionately large brains have a greater capacity for adaptive evolution. A study compared the relative body sizes of 7,209 species and found that families with a high degree of body size diversity tended to have relatively large brains. The large-brained birds included woodpeckers, hornbills, parrots, owls, lyrebirds, and crows.
  • Invasive brown tree snakes killed off most of Guam's birds, and now the lack of birds is altering the island's flora.
  • BirdLife is promoting a new Standard Lexicon for Biodiversity Conservation to improve communication and cooperation among conservationists around the world.
  • A new study refutes claims that hen harriers were causing declines among ground-nesting shorebirds.
  • An oil company in Montana pleaded guilty to killing migratory birds in open oil pits.
  • The Marvelous Spatuletail, a rare hummingbird, is being seen regularly at feeders in northern Peru.
  • Snowy egrets have created a large rookery in a city park in Willows, California, leaving residents around the park unhappy. (Even if you don't like the premises of the news story, check out the photo gallery that accompanies it.)
  • Substantial restoration work, including the clearing of invasive species, has brought nesting herons back to the Stone Harbor Bird Sanctuary (NJ).
Birds in the blogosphere
News about the environment
Carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Less Critical Habitat for Spotted Owls

The Bush administration has reduced the designated critical habitat for northern spotted owls (Strix occidentalis caurina) by 23%, from 6.9 million acres to 5.3 million acres. Northern spotted owls face a variety of threats, from a possible lack of genetic diversity to competition from barred owls (Strix varia) to blood parasites. Their primary, and perhaps only, habitat consists of old-growth forests. Therefore, spotted owls are particularly sensitive to habitat loss and fragmentation.

In such a context, logging in or near northern spotted owl habitat would be unwise. Yet there is consistent pressure, from the timber industry and from local governments, to reduce critical habitat and expand logging. The current reduction came as a settlement to a lawsuit from the timber industry, which wants to log on federal lands. The Bush administration has largely favored the industry approach, seeing the thinning or cutting of forests as a way to maintain "healthy forests." In this case, it seems that the owl's disappearance from some segments of old growth forest is being used as an excuse to turn those areas over to loggers.

"All you're doing is ... protecting more habitat for the barred owl," said Mickey, whose group represents the timber industry....

The plan is meant to help a lot of old-growth species, but the amount of protected federal land was set with spotted owls in mind. If the birds are gone, it could be easier to whittle away at those areas, said Chuck Meslow, a retired federal wildlife biologist who helped craft the 1994 plan.

It's on Washington's state and private lands where the decline of spotted owls could make the most immediate difference.

There, logging is often allowed in older forests, except in places with spotted-owl nests. Fewer owls could mean fewer places off-limits to chain saws.

The state Department of Natural Resources in 2005 put a moratorium on lifting protections for areas around abandoned spotted-owl nests. That was spurred partly by concerns that barred owls were driving them from prime habitat.

The moratorium is scheduled to expire at the end of the year.
The timber industry and their friends in the Bush administration promote killing barred owls as an alternative to preserving old growth habitat for northern spotted owls. The barred owls frequently outcompete northern spotted owls, primarily in habitats that have been disturbed or fragmented, as barred owls can adapt to a greater variety of habitat types. In this regard, reducing the number of barred owls may make sense in some areas. However, shooting barred owls is not a substitute for habitat protection. Unless there is a commitment to protect existing northern spotted owl nests, and to protect additional old-growth forests to allow the population to grow, shooting the barred owls is just senseless killing.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Quote of the Day

Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN):

"[Pelosi] is committed to her global warming fanaticism to the point where she has said that she's just trying to save the planet," Bachmann told the right-wing news site OneNewsNow. "We all know that someone did that over 2,000 years ago, they saved the planet -- we didn't need Nancy Pelosi to do that."
I guess we can all stop worrying now.

Boneyard Revived

The Boneyard has been revived. This blog carnival highlights posts about paleontology and other very old topics. The carnival had gone dormant earlier in the year, but is now back in operation, with a new edition to appear on the first Tuesday of each month. This month is the exception to the new schedule as Laelaps posted The Boneyard #22 yesterday.

click for a larger version

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Endangered Species Act Under Attack Yet Again

The lunacy never stops. Once again the Bush administration is trying to undermine the protections at the heart of the Endangered Species Act. This time, business interests lawyers at the Commerce and Interior Departments are trying to speed up environmental review for federal projects by allowing all agencies to make their own determinations, instead of referring them to wildlife officials for approval.

The new rules, which will be subject to a 30-day per comment period, would use administrative powers to make broad changes in the law that Congress has resisted for years. Under current law, agencies must subject any plans that potentially affect endangered animals and plants to an independent review by the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service. Under the proposed new rules, dam and highway construction and other federal projects could proceed without delay if the agency in charge decides they would not harm vulnerable species.
Note: Other reports indicate that there will be a 60-day comment period rather than a 30-day comment period. Either would make the rules go into effect before election day, leaving time for projects to be rammed through without proper review.

As the article points out, most federal agencies do not employ biologists qualified to make those determinations. Interior Secretary Dick Kempthorne says that this rule will bring "clarity and certainty" to the planning process. Indeed, it is clear that, freed from independent review, officials in other agencies are certain to approve projects, regardless of the environmental consequences. For example, look at what has happened with the border wall. Given the power to do so, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff waived any environmental regulations that might impede construction of the border wall, despite evidence of significant harm. The same will happen with other projects that are dear to powerful officials.

The new rules would also prevent greenhouse gas emissions from being regulated under the Endangered Species Act, specifically to avoid helping polar bears.
At the time of that decision, Kempthorne said he would seek changes to the Endangered Species Act on the grounds that it was inflexible, adding that it had not been significantly modified since 1986. In a statement yesterday, the Interior Department declared that even if a federal action such as the permitting of a power plant would lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions, the decision would not trigger a federal review "because it is not possible to link the emissions to impacts on specific listed species such as polar bears."

Kempthorne said the new regulations included that language "so we don't inadvertently have the Endangered Species Act seen as a back door to climate-change policy that was never, ever intended."
Real estate developers and coal companies cheered.

NWF is running a petition drive to make Secretary Dick Kempthorne rethink the proposed regulatory changes. Sign on to protect endangered species.

Researching Shorebird Decline

Shorebirds are in decline worldwide – not just red knots or piping plovers, and not just shorebirds in the eastern Pacific. Migratory shorebirds all over North America are declining, including common species. One reason why may be coastal development.

The populations of nearly all of North America's 55 shorebird species are declining - including most of the 35 that spend time in New England - in large part because of disturbance to their beachfront habitats. Every flap of their wings to evade beach walkers, all-terrain vehicles, or dogs depletes more of the energy they need for long flights, leading to lower reproductive success and even death, specialists said.

That means that as New Englanders flock to the beaches, they are forcing out flocks of Atlantic shorebird mainstays.
Wildlife conservationists are responding with banding and tracking programs to discover which areas are the most critical to preserve or restore and what the shorebirds' needs are.
Most shorebirds - a category that does not include waterbirds like gulls or terns - are long-distance migrants. At the extreme, they travel as much as 18,000-19,000 miles twice a year, said Brian Harrington, a Manomet senior shorebird scientist. Their paths usually take them south along the Atlantic coast this time of year and north through the central United States in spring....

"One of the challenges is that these things are just flying all over the hemisphere," said Harrington, one of the godfathers of the shorebird conservation movement. "So to figure out the needs of these birds - sorting out the 'why' - requires this huge geographic understanding of the populations, and nobody really has that." ...
The article mentions research programs in several places and for a few species, including the oystercatcher banding study that Birdchick mentioned yesterday. One of the projects involves population surveys in the Arctic NWR.
To get better data, Stephen Brown, Manomet's director of shorebird research and conservation, is currently in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, surveying and determining the nesting density of shorebirds.

"We're in the process of building a North American-wide monitoring program," he said before he left. "But funding has been limited and you can imagine how difficult it is to track birds across the arctic."
Figuring out what is ailing species that migrate over (at least) two continents is no doubt a large and complex problem. Coastal development and harassment from beachgoers is certainly a possible contributor. As we have seen with red knots, food supply during migration can be another cause for decline. Climate change is likely to become a factor as well, if it is not already.

Globe Staff Photo / Mark Wilson

On a lighter note, the dowitcher at the center of the photograph accompanying the article appears to be levitating. (See also the shorebird image gallery.)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Wild Condors As Outdoor Zoo Animals?

A report from an AOU panel raises questions about how successful the program to restore California condors has been. Attempts to create new nesting colonies have required repeated interventions to save condors from the hazards of modern society.

They must be frequently trapped, tested and treated for lead poisoning. They depend on man-made "feeding stations," a buffet of lead-free carcasses of rats, deer, stillborn calves and other animals, a practice that has damaged their ability to forage.

As for natural reproduction, the yearlong study found that the condors' nesting success was "nil" before intense intervention last year to vaccinate chicks for West Nile virus and surgically remove ingested refuse such as rags, nuts, bolts, plastic and bottle caps.

Human aid has led to "inappropriate behavior" of the condors, which are attracted to people and man-made structures, the 57-page report found. The gregarious birds perch on utility poles, risking electrocution and, in Southern California, have taken to soaring with hang gliders and mingling with humans to pick through food wrappers.

So much effort is required to feed, nurse and protect wild condors, the scientists wrote, "that one might argue that they constitute little more than outdoor zoo populations."
Lead poisoning is one of the biggest problems, so much so that the report finds that condor population recovery will not be possible as long as lead ammunition continues to be prevalent within the condor's range. So far California is the only state to ban lead ammunition. The Fish and Wildlife Service has been doing outreach to hunters in other parts of the condor's range, where bans seem unlikely due to heavy opposition from the NRA. Even in California, there have been problems with enforcement and compliance. Arizona has had some success with a voluntary program including vouchers for non-lead ammunition.

Altogether the outlook for condors seems bleak. It is very sad to see a formerly wild bird basically acting like a city pigeon. It is possible that the report was overly pessimistic, but even so it raises questions about the future of recovery efforts. Will federal and state governments continue funding interventions? Can a species that requires substantial and prolonged human intervention to survive really be said to be wild?

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Birds Moving North

Poster child for climate change?

Photo by
Henry McLin

Will over at The Nightjar has been writing about some of the findings from the newly revised breeding bird atlas from New York state, starting with nightjars. Breeding bird altases, when repeated at 10-20 year intervals, can provide snapshots of how individual species are faring over time. They can also provide a means for assessing large-scale changes in a region's bird populations. Some researchers at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry used the data to study how 83 species were responding to climate change. Many birds are moving their ranges farther north, and both the northern and southern range boundaries are shifting.
“They are indeed moving northward in their range boundaries,” said researcher Benjamin Zuckerberg, whose Ph.D. dissertation included the study. “But the real signal came out with some of the northerly species that are more common in Canada and the northern part of the U.S. Their southern range boundaries are actually moving northward as well, at a much faster clip.”

Among the species moving north are the Nashville warbler, a little bird with a yellow belly and a loudly musical two-part song, and the pine siskin, a common finch that resembles a sparrow. Both birds have traditionally been seen in Northern New York but are showing significant retractions in their southern range boundaries, Zuckerberg said.

Birds moving north from more southern areas include the red-bellied woodpecker, considered the most common woodpecker in the Southeastern United States, and the Carolina wren, whose “teakettle, teakettle, teakettle” song is surprisingly loud for a bird that weighs less than an ounce.
The linked article states that New York is the only state to complete two breeding bird atlases. This is not quite correct, as Maryland and DC have also completed their second atlas, or at least the censusing phase. The data is available, though the book is not published.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Loose Feathers #161

Rock Sandpiper / USFWS Photo

News about birds
Birds in the blogosphere
News about the environment
Carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Alien Invaders in NJ

No not Bay Boy, but the gypsy moth.

More photos here.

These egg sacs and empty pupae shells were attached to trees clustered in a small area in New Jersey's Pine Barrens in Jackson Township. There seemed to be a pretty heavy infestation in that area, though I didn't notice much leaf damage. Perhaps a pesticide spraying program got to them in time.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Linnaeus' Legacy #10

Welcome to the 10th edition of Linnaeus' Legacy!

We birders received a reminder last week of how closely our pursuit is intertwined with the scientific study of taxonomy when the AOU suddenly reorganized the gulls and shortened a few birders' life lists. From an outsider's perspective, taxonomic decisions can seem arbitrary. After all, a gull still looks like a gull, even if it is in a new genus. In reality, classification is based on careful consideration of their form, behavior, and genetics. The posts for this carnival describe those features for an array of living taxa.

What's in a name?

Christopher Taylor of Catalogue of Organisms breaks down the grammatical complexities of Latin nomenclature in The Gender of a Table.


Christopher Taylor of Catalogue of Organisms reviews the first few billion years of evolution in Life Before it had Facial Features.


Eric Heupel of The Other 95% describes one of the most diverse groups of crustaceans in Ostracod or Ostracode. Included is a photo of a gigantic ostracod.


Aydin Örstan of Snail's Tales reviews an article on a new genus and species from the tricky land snail family Enidae in A fossil snail fits in between, or, maybe not.


What do we know (or what don't we know) about moray eels, based solely on museum specimens sitting in jars? Rick MacPherson of Malaria, Bedbugs, Sea Lice, and Sunsets asks a few distinguished museum curators of fish collections for their perspectives and reports the results in That's A Moray Monday: The "You Ask-I Deliver" Edition.


Delson Roche of Friendly Animals presents photographs of a Spot Billed Pelican.

Mike Bergin of 10,000 Birds reviews the AOU's reorganization of the Larinae in When is a Larid Not a Larus? (I would also recommend his post on that other group in Laridae, the Sterninae.)

Grrlscientist discusses a paper on the evolution of Australian rosella parrots in Rosellas, Rings, and Speciation: Testing the Ring Species Hypothesis. The genetic evidence is more complex than plumage and geography would indicate.

Grrlscientist presents the unusual breeding arrangements of Eclectus parrots in Evolution of the Enigmatic Eclectus. These parrots are among the few bird species in which the females have flashier plumage than the males.

Nick Sly of Biological Ramblings reviews the evidence for a split of North American Winter Wrens into eastern and western species, as was recently proposed, in The Winter Wren is multiple species!

Did you know that a subspecies of the Black-throated Green Warbler breeds only in the southeastern coastal plain? Nate of The Drinking Bird compares museum specimens of the coastal plain and nominate subspecies in It's not easy being Green, less so Black-throated.

Finally, my contribution is Evolution of the Wood Warblers, which discusses a recent genetic study on the Dendroica genus.

That is all for this month's edition. The September edition will be hosted by Eric Heupel at The Other 95%.

Hosts are still needed for future editions of Linnaeus' Legacy. A blog carnival depends on hosts to keep it going, so please consider hosting if you are interested in the subject.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

One More Day for Linnaeus' Legacy Submissions

Since some submissions are still trickling in, I am pushing the next edition for Linnaeus' Legacy to tomorrow.

Submissions can cover all aspects of biodiversity: taxonomy, identification, species names, newly-discovered species, evolution, etc. If you would like to be included, please send submissions to me at

Dissension at the EPA over Climate Change

Union leaders representing government employees write letters:

The letter alleges that Johnson subverted the work of EPA staff and damaged the agency's reputation for "sound science and policy." The EPA needs public respect and support in order to implement the nation's environmental laws, it said....

"I'm sensing there's built-up frustration among EPA employees," said one of the authors of the letter, Mark Coryell, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3907, which represents staff members at the EPA's National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory.

"Their best efforts to do right by the law and sound science have been subverted by actions taken by or not taken by Johnson, our administrator," Coryell said. "A lot of them are certainly hurt by the impact on their professional reputations."
The letter came in response to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson's decision to overrule his employees' recommendations to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. Instead, the EPA's recent report on climate change delayed action on any new regulations and ignored the issue of likely health effects. Part of the problem is that Johnson is under pressure from the White House to suppress any inconvenient findings. However, Johnson himself appears to be part of the problem, too, as he continues to argue that the EPA has no authority to regulate greenhouse gases under current law – despite a Supreme Court ruling to the contrary.

The whole situation must be terribly demoralizing to the career employees at the EPA.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Taxonomic Changes to the AOU Checklist

Last week, the American Ornithologists' Union issued the 49th Supplement (pdf) to their Check-List of North American Birds. The AOU's checklist, unlike the ABA's, covers all of North America from the Arctic to the southern boundary of Panama, excluding Greenland but including Hawaii and islands in the Caribbean. After the current revision, it represents 2,048 species.

The biggest news is that the AOU reshuffled the subfamily Larinae, the gulls. Previously, most of the North American Larinae were assigned to the genus Larus with the exception of some small species such as kittiwakes (Rissa sp.) and Ivory Gull (Pagophila eburnea). The current supplement breaks Larus into four genera. White-headed gulls remain in the genus Larus. Hooded gulls are split into three new genera: Chroicocephalus, Hydrocoloeus, and Leucophaeus. There is also one new genus, Creagrus, based on recent sightings.

The gulls on the AOU list are now ordered as follows:

Creagrus furcatus Swallow-tailed Gull.

Rissa tridactyla Black-legged Kittiwake.
Rissa brevirostris Red-legged Kittiwake.

Pagophila eburnea Ivory Gull.

Xema sabini Sabine’s Gull.

Chroicocephalus philadelphia Bonaparte’s Gull.
Chroicocephalus cirrocephalus Gray-hooded Gull.
Chroicocephalus ridibundus Black-headed Gull.

Hydrocoloeus minutus Little Gull.

Rhodostethia rosea Ross’s Gull.

Leucophaeus modestus Gray Gull.
Leucophaeus atricilla Laughing Gull.
Leucophaeus pipixcan Franklin’s Gull.

Larus belcheri Belcher’s Gull.
Larus crassirostris Black-tailed Gull.
Larus heermanni Heermann’s Gull.
Larus canus Mew Gull.
Larus delawarensis Ring-billed Gull.
Larus occidentalis Western Gull.
Larus livens Yellow-footed Gull.
Larus californicus California Gull.
Larus argentatus Herring Gull.
Larus michahellis Yellow-legged Gull.
Larus thayeri Thayer’s Gull.
Larus glaucoides Iceland Gull.
Larus fuscus Lesser Black-backed Gull.
Larus schistisagus Slaty-backed Gull.
Larus glaucescens Glaucous-winged Gull.
Larus hyperboreus Glaucous Gull.
Larus marinus Great Black-backed Gull.
Larus dominicanus Kelp Gull.
The new result came as a result of mitochrondrial DNA studies. Those species remaining within the genus Larus seem likely to be reordered in a future supplement.

Other changes included:
  • Merging Mangrove Black-Hawk (Buteogallus subtilis) with Common Black-Hawk (B. anthracinus) as a subspecies,
  • Adding Pallas’s Leaf-Warbler (Phylloscopus proregulus) and Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) based on recent sightings,
  • Splitting Eastern Spot-billed Duck (Anas zonorhyncha) and Gray-cheeked Nunlet (Nonnula frontalis) from extralimital species,
  • Changing the English name of Phoenicopterus ruber to American Flamingo as Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) was split into a new species,
  • Placing flamingos (Phoenicopteridae) after grebes (Podicipedidae),
  • Changing six English names within the genus Turdus from robin to thrush,* and
  • Removing hyphens from violet-ears (now violetears).
Read the full supplement (pdf) for further changes and the reasoning behind them.

All of your field guides are now obsolete (if they weren't already).

* Turdus migratorius is still American Robin, for those who are wondering.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Milkweed Tussock Moth

Found yesterday in the Pine Barrens...

Milkweed Tussock Moth (Euchaetes egle)